Earphones

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He had long, brown, untidy hair. He wasn’t hunched over his laptop, but he was staring intently at it. I couldn’t tell if his eyes were watching the little ticker of the music player inch forward, or if he wasn’t paying attention to the screen at all, but more to the song blaring in his ears. He had earphones in; I couldn’t hear the treble of the song and he wasn’t tapping to the beat, but he was more focused on the song than I had ever seen anyone else be.


“What you listening to?” I said. He whipped around. His eyes were dark, wide, and shocked. He tore out his earphones. Now I could hear the treble and some of the guitars.


His voice was a mumble, but perfectly understandable. “Queens of the Stone Age.”


“Ah.” I said. I was still holding my suitcase. “I’m Matt.”


“Jeremy.” He said. He nodded at me, and then put the earphones back in. I took a look around the room. Jeremy’s box of s**t for the year was still unopened and sealed off in the corner next to a bed that I guessed he claimed.


“Aren’t you gonna unpack your stuff?” I asked. I kicked down my suitcase and zipped it open.


Jeremy took out an earphone again. “Yeah, hold up. Just let me listen to this one song.”


“Yeah.”


I stole a glance at him a couple seconds later, and saw him covering his eyes with big hands. His breathing was shallow. His lips pursed before a tongue traced over them. 40 seconds later, he took a deep breath and then took out his earphones.


I asked him if he wanted to put on some music while we were silently unpacking, but he was fidgety. Jeremy put on something with light guitars and a heavy bass, but he shut it off halfway through.


“It just—doesn’t sound right.” He tried to explain. “Sharing it with someone else—it’s not as important to me. Or … special?”


“I understand.” I said. No, I didn’t, but I respected that he didn’t want to share it with me.


I felt weird about putting on my own music. His music was so precious to him, but mine was different. Honestly, I liked weird stuff: Of Montreal, Bloc Party, The Moldy Peaches. I asked him about them, and he scrunched up his face and shrugged.


“They’re okay. You can put them on, if you want.”


That’s usually how it went: I played my music out loud, and Jeremy listened through his earphones. The only times he put it on speakers were when he was alone in our dorm. As soon as I walked in, his dark eyes would flick up, and his music would be off. If I was in a bad mood, it would turn me off: Wasn’t I worthy of his music?


When kids came into our room while we were studying, they thought it was too quiet. I would sit at my laptop with my earphones in, and Jeremy would be on his bed with his earphones in. It was loud in our ears, but quiet to the world.


I never saw Jeremy without any form of music on. When he got in bed, he listened. When he got up, he grabbed his iPod and trudged to the bathroom. When he got back from class, he had earphones in, and then he’d sit at the computer and plug his earphones from his iPod to his laptop. That’s what he would do, listen at the computer when he was there, and then switch it to his iPod if he had to move. Sometimes he just unplugged his earphones from the laptop so that the room would host two seconds of The Strokes, and then he’d sit back down. I wondered if he listened to music in class. The teachers don’t much like music, so he probably didn’t. But I could picture him tapping a beat with his fingers or his feet to some song in his head.


Sometimes I wanted to tell him that something bad could really happen to his ears if he constantly listened to music. But I’m sure he wasn’t always listening to music. Yes, even though he had a subwoofer (it was the first thing he unpacked from his box of s**t), he didn’t have a shower player. Sometimes he had music on when friends were over, but usually not. And of course, he didn’t listen in class. So I didn’t tell him.


Some of his friends liked his music, some didn’t. It was good to know he was into other stuff besides music. His classes, surprisingly, were far from music. He did take one music class, but the others were math, art history, other stuff.


Jeremy didn’t have a guitar or a bass or even a keyboard.


“I tried to learn guitar once,” he told me, “But music is for me to listen to, not to make. I made some lyrics, but I don’t have any tunes for it.”


I thought lyrics without a tune was just a poem. Jeremy told me it wasn’t. He taught me about music, either voluntarily or involuntarily. I wanted to give him something back. I took one of his lyrics, got together with a friend who played guitar, a friend who drummed, a friend who sang. I mixed it myself, and showed the final product to Jeremy as a New Year’s gift.


Jeremy’s smile was slow, but true. At some point, his smile faltered and scrunched up to one side. He laughed for some parts. At the end, he blinked and smiled again.


“No one’s ever made a song for me before.” Jeremy almost-whispered. “Just to get that out of the way. It feels really good that you did this.”


“Me and my friends. But yeah, keep going.”


“Honestly, Matt, the guitars sound a bit weird. The distortion should have been higher. It’s mixed weirdly. A guitar would sound better in the beginning than a piano. Girls singing have always been not as rewarding as boys voices to me—not to sound sexist or anything-- and her voice is too soft. The drums are good. And it is very catchy.”


Ouch. But hey, it was my first time, I liked it, and he had smiled when he heard it. I’m down.


He’s addicted to music, which doesn’t sound all that bad. Talking is like music, right? We went shopping for some new clothes once. Jeremy accidentally left his iPod at our dorm. He wasn’t screamy or angry, but he did keep reaching in his pocket only to remember Weezer was at home. His voice was harsher. He kept drinking water. He was strangely affectionate, and grabbed my shoulders and dug his forehead into the back of my neck.


“I can’t believe I left it back.” He moaned. “I’m Hives-deprived. Blur-deprived. Franz-deprived.”


And when we got back, Jeremy grabbed his iPod and listened like it was a drug. His eyes closed and he smiled and sighed and leaned back on his bed and actually, he felt up his crotch a bit before he rushed to the bathroom with his iPod.


Jeremy blocked out his emotions to music. If he was angry, he’d do The Vines. Happy, confused, or sad, he listened to his favorites. He picked the catchy, fun songs when he was happy, too, and he sang along half the time. I don’t know if he verbally vented to his friends when something was up, but I knew that at our dorm, he drowned in music.


Yesterday he came in the room and immediately dropped to his laptop and played Arctic Monkeys out loud. I knew something was wrong. He saw that I was in the room-- specifically, I was sitting on my bed reading a book for class—and he still played it out loud. Jeremy looked strained, like his emotion was suppressed, which it probably was. He raised the volume up to just before I would say to turn it down. He closed his eyes and bit his lip, breathed in like music was an inhalant. But before even a minute into the song, he paused it.


Jeremy had never purposely stopped his music before. Or at least wanted to. Once, someone stopped it for something, I don’t remember what, and Jeremy blew up. He’d done it if he had to go somewhere, but even then he would pause it between beats or words. This time it was straight in the middle of a word. My eyes lifted from the pages of my book to watch him. Jeremy was frozen, like he couldn’t believe he had just paused the music. And then his head hit the desk, and he cried.


I didn’t know what to do. I just watched him at first. Jeremy’s shoulders shook and he didn’t moan, but he gasped and sighed brokenly. Finally I slipped out of bed, and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.


“Hey,” I whispered.


Jeremy’s sobs died down a bit. His head lifted, but he still didn’t look up at me.


He shuddered, “The music would always block out everything.”


I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just squeezed his shoulder.


“Whenever I was sad, I would just listen to The Killers, and everything would be okay.” Jeremy continued.


“Why don’t you listen to them now?”


“I don’t want to!” Jeremy blurted. He looked at me, and I could see how torn up he was. “I don’t want to be driven by my music! I rely on it too much. It chooses how I feel, it makes decisions for me, it takes and gives friends. Who am I without my music?” Jeremy paused. “Where would I be now if I’d never discovered The White Stripes or Jet? Would I be sadder? Happier? I don’t even want to pursue a career in music—this is all for nothing! When am I ever gonna use this? What makes it so good that humans are one of the few organisms on the planet to be able to sing? Why did we invent songs? Why do-- people who want to be band members don’t do well in school because they don’t need to know history or science if they’re singing, but it’s so hard to be in a successful band—hell, it’s hard to make a single song! And then what do those kids do when they’ve realized they’ve flunked out of school with no band to get money? They probably go back to their music, or maybe they give up music forever. Why is the gift for making music only given to certain people? Do they know how terrible it feels to not be able to make your own song? How would the world be if everyone was a musician? We wouldn’t get anything done! No, the world would be a more beautiful place. Music—it—”


Jeremy sighed harshly. He rubbed his hand up his face, and then down it. He looked at the paused song on his computer, and then said softly, “I just need to get away from my music for a while.”


“Your music made you think all this?”


“Music is such bullcrap.” Jeremy barked automatically. He couldn’t help himself, and played the rest of the song.


--ping on the seat.


Several hours or several weeks.


I’d have the cheek to say they’re equally as bleak.


We stood there listening to the song for a while, before I said, “You’re right.”


Jeremy glanced up at me.


“It’s a waste of time. Why sit there and stare into space with guitars and notes in your ears, when you can do so many other things? You could read a book or watch a movie or talk to your friends. Musicians are losers, because they know that music is useless, yet they still use it to make money off—”


“You shut up.” Jeremy snapped.


I smiled. He was shocked, because he had expected me to be angry for cutting me off. But then he realized what I had done. I had killed his outburst, because we both knew he did like music. A lot.


Jeremy smiled grimly and looked back at the screen. We realized that he would never be able to get out of liking music, and he would always want more. It was a drug. But I thought it was the best drug there was.


We listened to the rest of the song in silence.


“It’s beautiful.” Jeremy said.





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